Budding Medical Marijuana Industry Begins To Grow

By Amanda Martindale; Photos By Danielle Debley

One full year after Pennsylvania’s first legal marijuana dispensaries opened for medical use, revenue continues to rise steadily and enrollment has exceeded expectations set by other legal states.

Gov. Tom Wolfe signed Senate Bill 3 into effect April 6, 2016, legalizing medical marijuana. According to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s website, the bill allows patients with approved conditions to obtain medical marijuana cards from approved physicians. After obtaining a card, patients may meet with dispensary pharmacists who help to formulate treatment plans that can improve symptoms.

According to Eric Hauser, a former pharmacist and current co-owner of the area’s first dispensary, Organic Remedies, medical marijuana provides pain relief and improves the quality of life for patients who suffer from a wide range of neurological and physical diseases including cancer, autism, opioid use disorder, Crohn’s disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“[The patients we see] are mostly at the end of their rope,” Hauser says. “They’ve been to the doctor, they’ve been to the surgeon, they’ve been to the chiropractor, you name it. Every type of therapy that exists they’ve tried and it hasn’t worked. So they come here for pain management. In a short amount of time, we can usually get them to a good place so that they no longer need opiates or any of these drugs that have a lot of side effects that are pretty dangerous.”

Since opening Feb. 2018, the location has seen 5,000 unique patients. Treatments are available in a wide variety of forms, including tinctures, topicals, concentrates, oral syringes, pens, and cartridges. “Dry leaf,” a form of medical marijuana that was legalized July 2018, is also available but may only be vaporized, not smoked.

“I’ve suffered from pretty bad anxiety and my doctor used to have me on Xanax, and it made me a complete zombie,” says a patient at the dispensary, who wished to remain anonymous. “Marijuana doesn’t do that for me. I can go about my day just like anyone else and feel normal.”

The patient explained that he uses multiple dispensaries in the area, and most have menus that update up to five times a day depending on stock availability and daily shipments. Because there are only nine growers in Pennsylvania, inventory changes quickly.

“I usually try to call ahead and have them set aside what I need,” he says. “Sometimes I check the menu and things that they just put up are gone within an hour. There’s a huge demand.”

The demand is constantly increasing. The Pennsylvania Department of Health recorded that 116,000 patients enrolled in the first year that dispensaries were open. Marijuana Business Daily reported that Maryland had just above 50,000 in their first year, while both Illinois and New York had less than 13,000.

Despite promising statistics, the medical marijuana industry still has plenty of hurdles to overcome, like combating stigma and continuing to provide research to support its reported benefits.

“I have a history of stomach ulcers and I’ve always wanted something better than painkillers, but the stigma around marijuana really holds me back,” says Alexander Zehring, a landscaper who has considered applying for a medical marijuana card. “I wonder a lot about what my family and my job might think.”

This is a common concern for prospective patients who are weighing their options.

“I remember seeing an article late last year about a woman losing her job over using legal marijuana,” says Zehring. “I would like to think in the coming years that this kind of thing will be a thing of the past.”

While there are anti-discrimination clauses in The Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act that prevent employers from discriminating against employees based on their status as a registered patient, there are very few court cases available that set a precedent for situations moving forward.

The healthcare industry has also been slow to fully accept medical marijuana. According to Penn Medicine’s website, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved medical marijuana and the Drug Enforcement Agency still lists it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

“I don’t think enough research has been done on its scientific benefits so it’s hard for me to actually recommend something to patients that hasn’t been proven scientifically to benefit them,” says Laura Traub, a surgery resident at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “In the medical field, most of our recommendations are based on research. So, if a new product doesn’t have much research behind it, it generally doesn’t get recommended as often.”

While Pennsylvania is not one of the states that legalized medical marijuana as a substitute for opioids after a procedure, Traub notes that hospitals don’t have stock for patients who would otherwise use it as a substitute. “We don’t have it on formulary in the hospital. So, we often order people other pain medications while they’re in the hospital – even if the person is on medical marijuana at home,” she says.

Many healthcare providers are still unwilling to support the industry fully, but attitudes are changing as more research is published and patients continue to report success.

“I had physicians that wouldn’t even talk to me a year ago, when we were opening,” says Hauser. “I invited them all here just to see what it is. They wouldn’t even come. They didn’t want to hear about it. Fast forward a year. They have patients that we’ve treated, and now they’re referring patients here.”

For people in the industry like Hauser, it’s completely worth facing those obstacles with the knowledge that they’re making a difference in the lives of people who feel like they’ve run out of places to go.

“We’re getting people completely off of opiates, or anywhere from 75 to 80 percent reduction isn’t uncommon,” explains Hauser. “When you think about the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic, that’s huge, and that alone makes my job worthwhile.”

Registering for Medical Marijuana ID Card

Under the law, Pennsylvania residents who have a serious medical condition as certified by an approved physician are considered medical marijuana patients. Patients must register for an ID card and use that card to obtain medical marijuana at Pennsylvania dispensaries. Caregivers who are Pennsylvania residents and are designated by patients to deliver medical marijuana to them, obtained at a Pennsylvania dispensary, must  also register for an ID card and must complete a background check.  

Who can participate in this program?

A person with an approved serious medical condition who is a Pennsylvania resident and is certified by a doctor participating in the program.

What are the approved “serious medical conditions”?

A “serious medical condition” under the law is any one of the following:
• Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
• Autism
• Cancer, including remission therapy
• Crohn’s disease
• Damage to the nervous tissue of the central nervous system (brain-spinal cord) with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity, and other associated neuropathies
• Dyskinetic and spastic movement disorders
• Epilepsy
• Glaucoma
• Huntington’s disease;
• Inflammatory bowel disease
• Intractable seizures
• Multiple sclerosis
• Neurodegenerative diseases
• Neuropathies
• Opioid use disorder for which conventional therapeutic interventions are contraindicated or ineffective, or for which adjunctive therapy is indicated in combination with primary therapeutic interventions
• Parkinson’s disease
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
• Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain
• Sickle cell anemia
• Terminal illness.

How do know if am eligible for the program?

If you believe you have an approved serious medical condition, you will need to visit a doctor approved to participate in the program. The doctor will certify that you have an approved serious medical condition and are eligible for medical marijuana.

What steps do need to take to participate in the program as patient or caregiver?

There are four-steps to participate in the program:

  1. Register at the PA Department of Health’s website at www.pa.health.gov
  2. See an approved practitioner to get certified
  3. Pay for your medical marijuana ID card
  4. Visit a Pennsylvania dispensary with your medical marijuana ID card.

What information do need to have available when register?

All patients and caregivers must have proof of Pennsylvania residency in the form of a Pennsylvania driver’s license or a Pennsylvania state issued ID card with their current address. Patients and caregivers also must have a working email address.

For additional information go to the Pennsylvania Department of Health website at www.health.pa.gov